We hear plenty about the horror of Iraq. There are bombs in market places, at hotels and official buildings. There are sectarian rifts, dozens of militias and politicians who claim to be fighting terror yet who have their own private armies. Fifty-three billion dollars has been spent on post-invasion aid, and yet 40 per cent of Iraqis are without drinking water. Iraq is currently ranked the fifth most corrupt country in the world by Transparency International.

Freedom isn’t, perhaps, the first word that springs to mind when you think about Iraq. But it is the word used by Haydar Daffar, an Iraqi film-maker in his late 30s, whose 2005 documentary The Dreams of Sparrows recounts the chaos and tragedy of post-invasion Iraq through the eyes of its artists. He supports himself — like film-makers everywhere — by making commercials. “There is freedom here today,” he smiles when I meet him on a late February afternoon at the Hewar Gallery, one of Baghdad’s remaining few. “Freedom of expression and freedom to kill.”

I returned to Iraq after seven years away, a few days before last weekend’s election. The last time I was here, it was in the wake of the 2003 invasion; I was researching my book Dancing in the No Fly Zone. Now I’m here as a co-editor at New Internationalist planning our May issue on Iraq. As gangs of journalists in full body armour roam the streets of Baghdad looking for stories on the election, I’m on a different mission entirely: to find signs of cultural life in a place that was once called the City of Peace.

As Daffar and I drive through Baghdad’s toxic traffic in our beaten-up old car — it can now take two hours to cross town, if you don’t die of exhaust inhalation en route — he tells me his story. He was threatened by both Sunni and Shia militias and forced to flee. He’s not sure why, but suspects it’s because The Dreams of Sparrows contained references to Baghdad’s thriving underground drinking culture (one that he thoroughly enjoys, he lets slip). Admittedly, that was back in the bad old days of sectarian militia terror — days that, depending on who you ask, lasted anywhere from 2004 until very recently.

As we drive past a plethora of election posters depicting candidates promising peace, prosperity and even national unity, those ideas seem very far away. Pistols with silencers are big these days in Baghdad, as are mortar rounds lobbed at the green zone, car bombs and police violence. A whole family was recently beheaded here by an unknown hit squad, and a university professor gunned down in the street.

But at an old Ottoman villa on the banks of the Tigris — apparently once inhabited by Gertrude Bell, who was here with TE Lawrence in the 1920s and, amazing as it sounds, helped draw up the borders of present-day Iraq — I encounter a parallel world. The building has recently been converted into a theatre, and a group of young actors and dancers are rehearsing for a new play — a fusion of dance, drama and film — about Iraqi poet Mudaffer al-Nawab. Imprisoned after the 1963 CIA-backed Ba’athist coup, al Nawab, a communist writer, now makes strident statements against both American occupation and the Iraqi government from his home in Syria. The play’s choreography carries echoes of the jazzy yet balletic style of diva Twyla Tharp, as well as break dancing, and even the Iraqi folk circle dance called chobi.

Their enthusiasm is so infectious that I put down my notebook and join in. Afterwards, I get talking to the cast. A 21-year-old from a poor Shia neighbourhood says that he was threatened by Mahdi militia a few years ago for “having long hair” and “being an actor”, but that now the situation has improved. One of his colleagues, an 18-year-old named Ali from the same neighbourhood, who does a mean moonwalk, tells me that his father was killed by Saddam Hussein for belonging to the Dawa party. He says his two brothers — both religious — disapprove of his theatre work, but his mother comes to all his performances.

Another actor, Bushra Ismail, is a veteran of the Iraqi theatre scene and recently won the award for best Arab actress in Cairo. “Under Saddam we suffered from censorship,” she recounts, “but now it’s the religious parties we have to be careful about offending. There are a whole new set of red lines that we can’t cross.” Still, everyone is excited about opening night.

In the nearby neighbourhood of Karradeh, the National Theatre (a once-grand, now slightly derelict building, built during the Iran-Iraq war) is closed for restoration when I visit. Now surrounded by colourful election posters, the theatre began evening performances again at the end of 2008 (safer daytime performances were the norm following the invasion).

The National’s information director Nabeel Taher, a serious-looking man in his 40s, tells me that although there is still insufficient arts funding from the government, he feels hopeful about the future of Iraqi culture. “We feel much freer than before,” he says, citing a recent political satire by Iraqi playwright-director Haider Monather that lampooned the then head of parliament Mahmoud al-Mashhadani. “[Al-Mashhadani] sent the actors flowers and a congratulatory card,” he explains. Such a thing would have been unimaginable a decade ago.

The theatre, which under the Ba’ath party provided much-needed relief from the twin terrors of sanctions and Saddam, met with hardships after the 2003 invasion. It was bombed twice in 2008; the first time during a production of an anti-militia play, and the second when the organisation’s celebrations for International Theatre Day 2008 clashed with a huge anti-occupation demonstration lead by Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr just across the street.

“Some militiamen crossed over and threatened to hang us from a pole unless we stopped our celebrations,” says Taher. “But I tried to reason with them, saying: ‘Look, we are just artists, not politicians, and we are all Iraqis after all.'” The result was a National Theatre-sponsored play about the life of the Shia Imam Hossein, produced on location in Sadr City with a mixture of professionals and local amateurs — including a few militia members. One even left the militia to become an actor, Taher reveals, but won’t talk to us about it because he doesn’t want to dwell on his past.

Dwelling on the past is a big deal at the Iraqi Museum in Karkh, an area of Baghdad that shares borders with an old quarter of the city turned tough innercity neighbourhood. The museum was famously looted after the invasion — as U.S. tanks stood by — although several of the artefacts stolen were allegedly part of an inside job. It officially re-opened last year after extensive repairs and renovations, with at least half of the objects yet to be found.

Making my way past security checkpoints flying Shia banners, I meet up with Muwafaq al-Taei, an architect and town planner who was both lionised and terrorised by the old regime. He was the designer of some of Saddam’s more grandiose public projects, but also an unrepentant and spied-upon communist. He walks with a limp after being shot by U.S. forces a few years ago while working on a housing project for Marsh Arabs in the south. Now 68, he possesses an unbridled enthusiasm for his country’s heritage.

As it turns out, Taei is to be my guide around the museum — valiantly stepping in when the official curator refuses to do the job without a $500 fee. What follows is a fascinating two-hour lecture on Iraqi history, from the Babylonian queen Semiramis, who successfully dammed the Euphrates for both irrigation and defence purposes, through to caliphs who made deals with various sects and factions to stay in power. “You have to understand the past to make sense of the present,” Taei says.

Sadly, the glories of Iraq’s civilisation are displayed for a lonely few. Any hopes of a surge in cultural tourism have been quashed by the precarious security situation. There are far more people working at the museum – including a swarm of middle-age men smoking and chatting in the lobby — than there are visitors.

Later, Taei takes me to Sheikh Ma’rouf, a tough neighbourhood only 500 metres from the museum, to see the tomb of Zumurrud Khatun, a caliph’s wife. This exquisite example of Seljuk-style Abbasid architecture should be, by rights, a Unesco world heritage site. Instead, it lies derelict in a neighbourhood full of guns and garbage. When the keeper of the tomb makes threatening noises, Taei saves the day through sheer charm.

Iraqis always seem to find a way of rising to the occasion. The next day, as I made my way through the seven circles of security hell at Baghdad airport (the same day that bombs ripped through Baquba), the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra performed a triumphant concert of Beethoven and Brahms at the Institute of Fine Arts in the Mansour neighbourhood, attended by several hundred people, mainly students and families. An excited young music student Skyped me. “It was amazing,” he said. “It made me feel proud to be Iraqi.”

This post first appeared in The Guardian.

Hadani Ditmars

Author, journalist, and photographer Hadani Ditmars has reported from Lebanon, Israel/Palestine and Iraq, often examining the human costs of sectarian strife as well as cultural resistance to war, occupation...